Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2007
Issue No. 866
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mutual support? Forget it

Shaden Shehab watches as any semblance of solidarity between journalists disintegrates

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Our divisions help no one

Soapbox: Not just a press crisis

What should be made of the voluntary cancellation of the editions of 22 independent and opposition newspapers? Is it a coherent way to protest against what journalists believe is a concerted campaign to silence voices critical of the regime? Or is it a shot in the foot?

Such questions came to a head when the vast majority of independent and opposition newspapers failed to appear on 7 October in protest against the latest round of custodial sentences handed down to journalists.

The action was a response to sentences passed against Ibrahim Eissa of Al-Dostour, Wael El-Ibrashi of Sawt Al-Umma, Adel Hammouda of Al-Fagr and Abdel-Halim Qandil, the former editor of Al-Karama. All four editors were sentenced to one-year in prison, pending appeal, after being found guilty of for libelling senior figures in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Not that any of the victims of the alleged libel had filed lawsuits. The plaintiffs against all four editors were ordinary members of the NDP who also happened to be lawyers. Another lawyer, together with a state security officer, have filed a further case against Eissa, potentially far more serious, accusing him of attempting to destabilise national security by spreading rumours about President Hosni Mubarak's health.

Journalists had hoped that senior NDP officials could be persuaded to press the plaintiffs into dropping their suits, to which end discussion of any response to the wave of journalists appearing in courtrooms was waived until Press Syndicate Chairman Galal Aref, and a committee that included leading journalists, had opened discussions with the government in an attempt to have the charges withdrawn. Aref subsequently suffered a heart attack and the government has stalled negotiations until he recovers. It was during the ensuing lacuna that the 22 newspapers opted not to go to press.

While agreeing to the move, some editors said they had been pressured into their papers not appearing, while others said it was a lame tactic that only led towards a cul-de-sac.

On Saturday Al-Masry Al-Yom announced apologetically that it would cancel the next day's issue in support of "press freedom and to protest against custodial sentences as well as those newspapers -- state-owned, opposition or independent -- that seek to blackmail us in the most indecent language, and in protest against the ruling party."

Al-Osbou 's Mustafa Bakri took a more extreme stand. He withdrew from the negotiating committee, saying that by cancelling their publications journalists had effectively ended negotiations. "We decided to take part and not come out on Sunday out of solidarity and not conviction," Bakri said. "I warned at the time that this action will close the door in the face of any negotiations."

Whether Bakri is right or not, Safwat El-Sherif, chair of the Higher Press Council, speaker of the Shura Council and secretary-general of the NDP, told the editor of the Middle East News agency that, "the NDP cannot ask its members to withdraw a lawsuit, nor can it interfere with court rulings."

Yehia Qallash, the Press Syndicate's secretary, disagrees with Bakri. "Sunday's action was successful," he insisted. "Negotiations with the government will continue. They have not ended as some would like to claim."

The state-owned daily Rose El-Youssef, predictably enough, pounced on the dispute to attack the independent press and minimise the impact of their protest. "Out of 517 newspapers and magazines [only] 22 cancelled publication... and a political force is behind their action," it thundered.

Gossip abounds that the government has struck a deal with at least some editors of the independent press and it is rumoured that legal cases will be dropped if papers refrain from supporting Eissa when he is tried for spreading misinformation about Mubarak's health.

They are rumours that Eissa takes seriously. In his column on Monday he revealed that he received little support from the editors of other independent newspapers who took action only after the court convicted the three other editors of libelling NDP officials. Eissa then made an offer. "If the state promises to abolish custodial sentences for publication offences then I promise I will resign and never write again," he wrote. The offer, he continued, was being made so that "journalists will know I am not the reason the state refuses to abolish custodial sentences, and that any journalists critical of the regime could be standing, at some point in the future, in my shoes.

The Press Syndicate election for the post of chairman and 12-council members is scheduled for 17 November. That leaves plenty of time for journalists to turn on one another as they seek to curry votes to further personal, rather than collective, agendas. Meanwhile the government will relax, sit back and watch.

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